Woman crossing street holding sunflowerSelf-compassion is the ability to turn understanding, acceptance, and love inward. Many people are able to extend compassion toward others but find it difficult to extend the same compassion toward themselves. They may see self-compassion as an act of self-indulgence, but extending compassion toward oneself is not an act of self-indulgence, selfishness, or self-pity. In fact, self-compassion can help relieve many mental health concerns such as anxiety or insecurity. Many mental health professionals help people develop compassion for themselves.

What Is Self-Compassion?

Compassion is the ability to show empathy, love, and concern to people who are in difficulty, and self-compassion is simply the ability to direct these same emotions within, and accept oneself, particularly in the face of failure. Many otherwise compassionate people have a harder time showing compassion for themselves, sometimes out of a fear of engaging in self-indulgence or self-pity, but an inability to accept areas of weakness may lead to difficulty achieving emotional well-being. Studies show that women in the United States typically show less compassion to themselves than men do. This may be partially due to the fact that women are often societally assigned the role of caregiver, with gender norms emphasizing nurturing, self-sacrificing acts.

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Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher and the first to define the term academically, describes self-compassion as having three elements.

  1. Self-kindness, or refraining from harsh criticism of the self.
  2. Recognizing one's own humanity, or the fact that all people are imperfect and all people experience pain.
  3. Mindfulness, or maintaining a non-biased awareness of experiences, even those that are painful, rather than either ignoring or exaggerating their effect.

Self-compassion is also often confused with or linked to self-esteem, but the two differ: While self-esteem focuses on favorable self-evaluation, particularly for achievements, self-compassion is a form of self-acceptance, even in the face of failure. This emotion represents a shift away from being the best toward simply being the person one is. A person who scores high on measures of self-compassion might accept failures without defensiveness or justification and recognize that all people, even one's own self, are deserving of love and acceptance. On the other hand, high self-esteem might lead to a tendency to ignore or hide any personal flaws.

An Alternative to Self-Esteem

Self-compassion does not depend on either social comparisons or one's sense of personal success; rather, recognition and acceptance of one's flaws often leads to growth and personal development in a way that self-esteem does not. Though self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem, people who have little self-compassion might also have low self-esteem. Both are important traits to possess, but researchers are increasingly arguing that too much self-esteem can be as detrimental to mental well-being as not enough self-esteem. Teachings based on fostering self-esteem, especially at a young age, may place more emphasis on encouraging positive feelings and a belief that one is special than on building individual competence in a particular area. High self-esteem may facilitate the development of a biased view of the self and may make it difficult to improve any flawed areas. Those with high self-esteem may be more likely to experience difficulties in their relationships with others and may tend to engage in acts of anger or aggression toward those who threaten their self-image. They might also be more likely to put others down in order to maintain an inflated view of the self.

When self-compassion is the focus of development, rather than self-esteem, one's sense of self-worth tends to increase and is no longer a point of consistent evaluation. Self-compassion does not depend on either social comparisons or one's sense of personal success; rather, recognition and acceptance of one's flaws often leads to growth and personal development in a way that self-esteem does not. What's more, high self-esteem can often create or further a sense of isolation, while self-compassion might instead lead to a greater sense of belonging. Low self-compassion can also relate to perfectionism: People who feel they must be perfect all the time tend not to be forgiving of their own failures and may only feel worthy of love, acceptance, and respect when they achieve success.

The Effects of Self-Compassion

A lack of compassion for the self can play a role in mental health conditions. Many people find it difficult to feel self-compassion after a traumatic or troubling experience, especially when self-compassion is linked in the mind to self-pity. People going through a divorce, especially a difficult divorce, might have feelings of shame or guilt and may feel as if they have failed in their marriage and as if they are undeserving of a second chance or of healing. This self-judgment may lead to conditions such as anxiety, insecurity, or depression. Self-compassion, however, often allows people to accept their failures, move past them, and try again.

Therapists are increasingly focusing on the importance of self-compassion. Research shows that high levels of self-compassion may have a positive impact on recovery from posttraumatic stress, as the painful thoughts and memories that often result after a traumatic experience may be less threatening when self-compassion is sufficient, and facing them may be easier. Compassion fatigue or caregiver burnout can also occur as a result of providing extensive care to others, but studies have shown that self-compassion is often a preventative factor in the development of caregiver burnout, as those who have as much compassion for the self as for others are generally able to remain in touch with their own needs and maintain physical and mental well-being, generally with the help of an essential self-care routine.

Self-compassion is also considered to be beneficial in helping parents and other caregivers cope with the challenges that arise when caring for a child with a disability. Research suggests that parents who are raising a child with autism generally, when they are self-compassionate, report a more positive sense of well-being and experience fewer negative effects from the varied stressors they might face as a result of the child's condition.

Developing Self-Compassion in Therapy

Many therapeutic modalities focus on developing compassion for the self. For example, cognitive-behaviorists might help those in therapy work on reframing uncompassionate thoughts, while psychoanalytic therapists might work to uncover factors in early childhood that contributed to a lack of self-compassion and help those in treatment to work through those issues and develop compassion for themselves. An exploration of self-compassion and what it means (kindness to oneself) and does not mean (self-indulgence, self-pity) can also take place in therapy, and a better understanding of self-compassion might be the first step in developing greater compassion toward the self.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), developed from Jon Kabat-Zinn's mindfulness-based stress reduction program, is meant to increase self-awareness and thus can positively influence levels of self-compassion, as the goal of this therapy is for those in treatment to become able to see themselves separately from the negative thoughts and moods they might experience. In MBCT, the process of healing includes the interjection of positive thoughts in response to a negative mood, so those who experience a sense of lowness after focusing on their mistakes and flaws can often come to accept themselves more readily and direct compassion within.

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT), developed by Paul Gilbert, focuses on the use of compassionate mind training, or the development of attributes and skills that increase compassion, in order to facilitate the development of self-compassion through experiences that instill feelings of safety and contentment.

Strategies to Increase Self-Compassion

Greater self-compassion may be developed through a variety of exercises, as well as through therapy. It may be helpful to frame self-criticism as a critique that might be given to a friend. If the words are too harsh for a loved one, then they are likely also too harsh for the self. In general, people tend to be more accepting of the flaws of others than they are of their own. But by reconstructing diminishing or harsh critiques of one's flaws and being aware of one's own humanity and therefore, imperfection, greater self-compassion can be reached.

Kristin Neff developed a self-compassion scale to help people measure whether their own self-compassion is low, moderate, or high. She also developed several exercises that help enhance self-compassion, including writing a letter to oneself, from the point of view of a compassionate friend, every day for a week. Journaling or otherwise writing about personal imperfections and inadequacies can also help increase mindfulness, and when combined with changes in techniques of personal criticism, this practice can also positively influence the development of self-compassion.

Maintaining a self-care routine can also be of benefit, as the meeting of personal needs can increase one's ability to effectively care for and support others. When personal wellness declines, negative feelings might often be directed toward the self, and this can also make it more difficult to feel compassion for others.

Case Example

  • Therapy to increase feelings of self-compassion after an accident: Luther, 19, enters therapy, reporting feelings of depression, guilt, and self-loathing that began after his traffic accident three months earlier, when he ran a red light and was struck by another car. The other driver sustained significant but not life-threatening injuries, and Luther was injured severely enough that he has still not recovered the use of his left arm. He attends physical therapy, but he can no longer play on his college basketball team. Luther feels that basketball is the one thing he is truly good at, and this loss has led him to develop symptoms of depression and have a diminished value of his worth as a person. He also feels guilty for injuring the other driver, but that he is not worthy of forgiveness, because the accident was his fault. Luther's therapist encourages him to talk through his feelings and then reminds him that he is human and that all people make mistakes, and that only by learning from mistakes can people grow. Luther agrees with this reluctantly. Through several sessions, the therapist helps Luther discover that it is important to understand and accept that he made a mistake, which Luther has already done, but that it is also important to forgive himself. She asks how he would treat a friend in the same situation, and Luther realizes that he would react with compassion, not criticism. The therapist encourages him to turn this feeling inward.


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